Skepna – “Dagar Heiftar Og Heimsku” (2019)

skepnadagarSkepna got a lot of people excited with their rocking debut in 2013 and garnered a lot of solid press for their live performances at Airwaves and Eistnaflug, but then seem to have gone radio silent for a bit.  But all good things to those who wait, and last month the trio treated us to a new album, the hard-driving Dagar Heiftar Og Heimsku.  Skepna are back, and they’re as good as they ever were, if not maybe even a bit better.

All three Skepna members have impressive rock credentials.  Bassist Hördur Ingi Stefànsson played with one of my all-time favorite Icelandic rock outfits Brain Police.  Drummer Björn Stefánsson was part of the powerhouse Mínus.  And Hallur Ingólfsson?  Oh, he just played in a couple of OK bands like XIII and, you know, HAM.  No biggie.  Just a handful of the best hard rocking bands to ever come out of Iceland.  I figure I probably have something like 15 albums on my shelves that these guys have played on over the years.

Dagar Heiftar Og Heimsku doesn’t try to do anything fancy.  It just rocks your face off.  How can three guys get such a full sound (check out “Rautt”)?  “Biturt Blóð” is the most intriguing song to my ears, one that captures the strengths of the members’ respective former bands – the heavy psych of Brain Policy, the edginess of Mínus, a dose of HAM doomishness, and the polish of XIII all compressed into a diamond-hard track of riffs.  My other favorite is “Kjarval”, a sonic jackhammer, relentless with a tricky bass line adding character to the track and giving the whirlwind of the sonics something to circle.  Everyone gets their space to explore and shine, but I want to give an extra shout-out to Stefànsson’s bass work.  He’s not confined to keeping pace with the drums but instead given room to roam, and he takes full advantage.  Often it’s difficult to pick out the bass on a hard rock record, but that’s not the case on Dagar Heiftar Og Heimsku – it’s always right where it needs to be, sometimes supporting, sometimes out front leading the way.

I’m not sure about the press run on the vinyl – mine is on red, and that’s about all I can tell you.  There’s a free download included on a sticker affixed to the bottom corner of the inner sleeve, so if you’re looking for a loose card inside you might miss it.  Definitely recommended.

Rass – “Andstaða” (2005)

rassBy 2005 it had been a solid 10 years since the metal band HAM had put out a studio album, the last of which was (at that time) 1995s Dauður Hestur.  A pair of live CDs hit the market in 2001, but for all intents and purposes it seemed clear that HAM was a thing of the past by the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. (♠)  So what are a bunch of rockers to do when their rock band is no more?  Well, make another rock band, of course.  Or, if you’re so inclined, an old-school punk band.  And that’s exactly what HAM veterans Arnar Geir Ómarsson, Flosi Þorgeirsson, and Óttarr Proppé did in 2005 – form a band called Rass (“Ass”), put out an album called Andstaða (“Opposition”), take pot-shots at the old families that rule the nation’s fishing industry with an iron fist, play a few shows, then disband.  Which is all pretty punk rock.

I only learned of Rass’ existence recently while doing some research for a blog on the new Dr. Spock album. Andstaða is quite difficult to find, even in Iceland, typically selling online in the $50+ range.  Fortunately for me I was putting together an order with my friends over at Lucky Records and they had a copy, so a few weeks ago it arrived at my door.  And I’ve been playing the hell out of it ever since.

There’s a certain something, a sonic undercurrent, that to my ears defines the early Icelandic punk sound.  I can’t put it into words, but much like Potter Stewart once famously said about obscenity, “I know it when I see it” (♣), or in this case hear it.  What’s interesting to me about Andstaða, however, is that it lacks this element.  In fact, Andstaða is about the closest thing to first generation UK punk that I’ve ever heard come out of Iceland, especially “Lífsflótti”.  Of course, there are still clearly HAM influences here, not to mention a dose of Dr. Spock on “Pönk Familie”, which makes sense given that vocalist Óttarr Proppé is in all three bands.

At 12 songs and 20 minutes, Rass get in and out quick.  And it’s just the right amount for me.  Allegedly there were only 500 copies pressed of Andstaða, so if you see one you better grab it – you might not get the chance again.

(♠)  And remained that way until their phenomenal come-back album Svik, Harmur Og Dauði in 2011.

(♣)  Potter was a justice on the United States Supreme Court when he wrote that infamous phrase in a concurring opinion for the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio in 1964.  The suit arose from a movie theatre being fined for showing the French film The Lovers, which local authorities deemed pornographic.  Potter’s full quote was “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description {of hardcore pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

Iceland Airwaves 2017 – Day 4

It’s 10:30AM Sunday in Reykjavik, and I’m tired.  Like really, really tired.  When the cathedral bells of Hallkrimskirkja started going off like crazy I was afraid we’d slept until Noon.  Though on second thought that sounds like a pretty great idea.  Saturday feels like it was Day 4 of Airwaves… of Airwaves 2016 because it seems like so long ago.

We made two off-venue stops yesterday.  The first was to catch Lady Boy Records electronic band Panos from Komodo playing at a Salvation Army second-hand store.  We didn’t realize that these dudes are also the guitarist and bassist for Godchilla, who we saw on Friday. (♠)  Their lo-fi electronica set was both fun and funny, and their cover of Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” done entirely off key was something to behold.  I felt a little bad for the old guy in the store who just wanted to buy a hat, but hey, whatever.  Later we rolled over to KEX Hostel with the intention of seeing the ambient black metal band GlerAkur, but truth be told their soundcheck, which featured FIVE guitarists, was simply too loud.  I know, I know… “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.”  Fine.  I’m too old.  And I didn’t bring ear protection and would like to still be able to hear when I’m actually old.  You know, back when I was your age…

For dinner we made our annual stop at Shalimar for Pakistani food, then it was off to the Reykjavik Art Museum for the best, most stacked card of the night.  Six bands, five of which we know and four of which we’re big fans of.  We staked out a little corner nook in front of the soundboard area that put us in the heart of the action, about 50 feet from the stage in the long Art Museum room.

We basically stayed in that exact same spot for the next 6.5 hours.  First up was the female-fronted metal band Hórmónar (below).  Their lead singer’s voice was worse for wear after multiple shows during the festival, but she was a trooper and fought through it as the rest of the band compensated by turning the volume knobs to 11. (♣)  We saw them last year and they were one of the surprise new bands of the festival.  But a year later we experienced a much more confident group with a great stage presence, one that wasn’t just winging it but knew exactly what they wanted to do.

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That brought us to Auður and his hyper-sexualized brand of electronic R&B.  We saw `Auður last year and were impressed with his chutzpa when he introduced the crowd to his mother, telling us this was her first time seeing him perform live and they proceeding to sing a song that very explicitly told us EXACTLY what he wanted to do to a girl, with liberal use of the F word.  That being said, his music is excellent and he’s got a great voice.  Unfortunately we’re thinking there were some kind of technical problems because 10 minutes before his set was scheduled to end and out of the blue he went all Pete Townshend on his guitar.  It didn’t break the first time, which had to hurt his hands and arms like hell, but the second attempt blew it up pretty good.  He then stormed off stage, to the seeming surprise of his electronics guy who stood there for a good 15-20 seconds before slowly closing his laptop and walking off.  Fufanu followed, playing quite a bit of material off their 2017 album Sports.  The band was tight and continues to impress as they’ve matured.  There were some technical difficulties, but the upside from my perspective is that we got to hear the title track twice.  I’m wondering if similar technical problems didn’t contribute to the untimely demise of Auður’s guitar.  RIP Auður’s guitar; we hardly knew ye.

Then came the doom metal juggernaut that is HAM (below).  We are HAM!  This was the fourth time I’ve seen a full HAM set, and the fourth time they assimilated my being into he collective known as HAM.  We are HAM!  HAM brought it hard, with a few new tracks but also classics like “Dauð Hóra” and “Partíbær”.  The intensity of the pit grew over the course of the set as more and more horns were thrown and by the closing number the area in front of the stage more resembled a riot than a concert.  All another day in the life of one of Iceland’s first metal bands.  If HAM is playing live at Airwaves, I’ll always try to catch them at least once.

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After the HAM show my buddy turned to me and said, “I kind of wish we could fast forward past this next band and get to Gusgus”.  I understand the sentiment in that we were all really looking forward to a 90 minute Gusgus set, but I was intrigued by the fact that the next band was from Mali.  How did they end up on this card?  Well, I still don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that Songhoy Blues (below) reminded us why we spent all that money and flew all those miles to get to Reykjavik with their incredibly high energy and super positive vibe set of afro-funk-rock.  The crowd ate it up, and I for one will be ordering their new album Résistance when we return home.

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And that, my friends, brings us to Gusgus (below).  A stripped down version of Gusgus this time around, with only Biggi and Daniel on stage.  And they killed it for 90 minutes with a combination of somewhat recent material, most of it from 24/7 forward and including what I believe were some new numbers from the upcoming album.  It was a nearly non-stop river of music flowing over us, with the guys building and building the tension before finally giving us the release of the drop.  They were in top form, and while we were staggeringly tired when we walked out the door at 2AM I’m sure we’d have stayed another hour if they’d kept going.

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Last night at the Art Museum was one of the all-time great start-to-finish lineups we’ve ever seen at Airwaves.  It’ll take a few days or weeks to reflect to truly make that decision in my mind, as it’s too easy in the emotions of the moment to say “this is the most amazing moment ever”, forgetting that it’s not the first time you’ve felt this way.

There isn’t a lot of interest on the schedule tonight, but you never know what Airwaves has in store for you…

(♠) Which, to my sleep-deprived mind, seems like three years ago.

(♣) And they still weren’t even remotely as loud as GlerAkur.

HAM – “Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna” (2017)

Við erum HAM! (♠)

So far 2017 has been a banner year for new releases by bands I really like – Fufanu, Singapore Sling, Depeche Mode, Vök, and DIMMA all put out new albums, and none of them disappointed.  But maybe only a couple of times a year does one of your true favorites give you a new record.  You know the ones.  The bands that are go-tos on your iPod, the ones you can jam to over and over and over again and recommend to people even though you know they’ll never even make the effort to listen to them.  I’m looking forward to at least two such treats in the second half of the year, with both Legend and Gusgus announcing forthcoming material.  But before I get my hands and ears on those I just got a CD copy of the brand-spanking-new release by one of my all-time heavy metal loves. I speak, of course, of HAM.

We are HAM!

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How do I feel about HAM?  Well, I’ve covered their entire discography on Life in the Vinyl Lane, and I mean that quite literally.  I own all their albums and singles and comps, and I’ve seen them live four times.  I have a DVD documentary about them and even bought (and watched) the 1992 movie Sódóma Reykjavík (♣) because of it’s association with HAM.  I am HAM.

I’m always a bit leery of Google Translate.  It will generally get you in the right area, at least with respect to providing a literal translation; but often the nuances and true meaning are lost, especially when you’re talking about a language like Icelandic.  That being said, Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna is something along the lines of Songs About The Hell of Man, fitting HAM’s typical modus operandi when it comes to album and song titles that tend to skew towards darkness with just a hint of intentional absurdity.  Song titles encompass topics such as fire and lying and murder and shadows and West Berlin.  This is music about the darker side of life.

While Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna is HAM’s first output in six years, it’s not as if the band just recently wrote a bunch of new material.  Three of the new album’s ten songs were part of the band’s live set at KEX Hostel in November 2014 – “Brekka”, “Þú lýgur”, and “Morðingjar”.  I expected their only B side, “Tveir Dalir”, to make an appearance as well, but it didn’t, meaning the vinyl 7″ is still the only place to find that song on a physical release.  True to form HAM keeps their tracks tight, especially for a metal band – only one runs over four minutes, and that one (“Þú Lýgur”) is still under five.  There’s no self-indulgence here.  HAM just get in, punch you in the face and body a bunch of times, and get out.

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Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna opens with “Eldur” and a pretty straight forward guitar riff, at least it seems straight forward until Óttarr Proppé’s vocals kick in; I’m pretty sure he’s screaming at me from the depths of Hell and telling me to get off his lawn or something, because he sounds pissed.  That’s followed by “Þú Lýgur”, which gets us back to the sheer sonic relentlessness that has defined HAM’s sound on and off since their earliest days, characterized by driving music and the contrast of Sigurjón Kjartansson’s low gothic vocals and the high-pitched rasp of Óttarr Proppé (♥).  Songs like “Gamli Maðurinn Og Asninn” and “Þú Fórst Hvurt” harken back to the band’s less doomy Buffalo VirginDauður Hestur material, but do so in a way that feels less like HAM searching for a more mainstream sound and more like a more mature band simply doing what they feel like doing.  HAM save the best for last, though, closing out with “Brekka”, a near-perfect idealized version of their sound.

There’s an interesting story about the initial distribution of Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna.  As it was related to me, a small quantity of CDs were shipped to Reykjavik in advance of the actual release date so that the band would have them available to sell when they opened for Ramm­stein in May.  However, these CDs had the title of the album misspelled – “Mannanna” was spelled “Mannana”, and as a result the covers had to be scrapped and reprinted.  However… the copies with the incorrectly spelled cover shipped in for the show were sold, creating a variation.  It remains to be seen how the collector market will value this rarer version, and while I’m sure there are some who will be pissed at me for sharing this info, I’m all about getting information to people.  So if you find one of the copies with the “Mannana” cover priced like the regular CD, I’d snap it up.  As far as I know, there were no vinyl versions with the misspelled covers that made it into the wild.

I feel like HAM is a bit of an acquired taste.  Quite a few of my Icelando-musicphile friends freely admit to never having listened to them or not finding them particularly notable.  But then again, I don’t know that I’ve ever listened to a Sigur Rós album from start to finish, so who the hell am I to judge?  But if you like metal, you should definitely at the very least give Söngvar Um Helvíti Mannanna a listen.  It’ll definitely be in heavy rotation on my iPod.

(♠)  We are HAM!

(♣)  Sódóma Reykjavík is widely considered the best comedy to ever come out of Iceland. That being said, it’s also full of lots of local references and jokes that get lost on non-Icelanders… so let’s just say that through American eyes it was pretty weird.

(♥)  It bears mentioning that Óttarr Proppé is a member of Iceland’s national parliament, being elected either in spite of or in part because of his involvement with HAM and Dr. Spock, the former having put out a song named “Dauð Hóra” (“Dead Whore”) and the latter one called “SuckmycockSpockyoufuck”.

HAM – The Musical Catalog

P1030579I’d held a certain fascination with the Icelandic band HAM, even before I’d heard their music.  In part this was due to the “Legend of HAM.”  How much of it is accurate, I don’t really know, because often when Icelanders speak of HAM they do so in a very faux-serious kind of way, and you can never quite be sure if they’re messing with you or not.  Basically the story goes that HAM weren’t popular when they first hit the scene, put out a (at the time) shocking video that pissed some people off, were adored by Björk enough that they sometimes opened for The Sugarcubes (I can only imagine what Sugarcubes fans thought of HAM; Sigurjón Kjartansson described the 1989 tour to me as “A real Spinal Tap experience for a whole month.”).  Then they moved to New York, couldn’t get traction there, and came home and called it a career.  For a while.  Then The Legend grew, they opened for Rammstein’s Reykjavik shows in 2001, and re-formed in a fairly casual way.  But I’ll tell you this.  Today they have a whole lot of fans at home.  And they are likely one of the very few metal bands who can boast a national parliamentarian as an active member (Óttarr Proppé, above, probably saying something about friendship… and hate).

I’ve seen HAM live four times now, and every one of those shows was excellent.  From the killer music to Óttarr Proppé’s regular exhortations of “We are HAM!,” they put on a great show.  Once I lucked onto a copy of their first album Hold (more on that below), I knew I had to try to get my hands on all the band’s albums.  And with a little help from eBay, Dr. Gunni, and my friends at Lucky Records, I succeeded.

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 We are HAM!

I’m not going to give you a ton of background on HAM, because that’s already been done better elsewhere – so I encourage you to check out Dr. Gunni’s excellent 2011 English language article about the band in the Reykjavik Grapevine HERE.  As someone who was a part of the scene and who even played with the band for the briefest of moments, he knows more about them than I ever will.  The magazine Metal Hammer also did a solid article about HAM last year, though I believe you’ll need to sign up for their website to access it.

I did, however, take the time to reach out to the band’s founding member, singer and guitarist Sigurjón Kjartansson, and bugged him with a few questions about the band and the Icelandic music scene in general.  One thing that particularly intrigued me, as a fan of early Icelandic punk and new wave myself, is what bands influenced him growing up.  He replied, “It started with Utangarðsmenn when I was 12. It was a shock. Then came Þeyr, saw them in 1981 when they came Ísafjörður, the town I grew up in. They were magical. New wave – mystic and crazy. No real songs, just riffs. But probably my favorite from this time is Purrkur Pillnikk.”  Now, any regular reader of the blog knows I love Þeyr and Purrkur Pillnikk, but over time I’ve come to realize just how important Utangarðsmenn were to the developing scene in the early 1980s.  I may need to go back and re-visit some of their albums.

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Dr. Gunni weighing in on HAM’s influences on the documentary “HAM – Living Dead,” which truly captures the mock-seriousness that swirls around the band

I also got Sigurjón’s thoughts on the current music scene.  When asked what one band he would recommend people check out, he had a very definitive answer.  “I love Börn,” he responded.  “Maybe because they remind me of old times. But still they are very modern and real. I like real.”  I definitely agree – having seen Börn live a number of times, most recently last November, I can tell you they always leave it all out there on the stage for you to see and hear.  There’s no sugar coating it and nothing fancy, just raw punk rock.  You can, and should, go check out some of their stuff on their Bandcamp page HERE.

So, I’ve got all these HAM albums.  Now what?  Well, the “what” is below, a retrospective of the complete HAM catalog of studio, live, and band-specific compilation albums.  Because I had to draw the line somewhere and I’m not completely crazy, despite all appearances of being so, I only gave a cursory listing of the various soundtracks and  label/Icelandic music compilations that did not consist exclusively of HAM material.

So, without further ado, I give you…

Hold
(1988 -Smekkleysa – Vinyl only)

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I try not to get too caught up in the “collectibility” factor of records, but if you told me I had to get rid of most of my vinyl and I could only keep, say, five records, Hold would be one of them.  It’s ground zero for a seminal band, plus as an added bonus I bought it directly from none other than Dr. Gunni, arguably the most knowledgeable person in the area of Icelandic popular music.  The front cover is disturbing as hell, featuring a shirtless, blindfolded man with something written on his chest in blood.  Standing behind him is a guy dressed as a priest, wearing sunglasses, and wielding a samurai sword.  But what’s even more insane is what’s inside in a fold-out mini poster (kids, if buying a copy of this, make sure to check to see if it includes the poster!), because now we find out that our blindfolded friend is on his knees and completely naked, this time with the priest pulling his head back by the hair and raising the sword with the other hand.  I’m not sure what the story is with the motorcycle parked behind them, but that’s secondary to the nightmare-indicing imagery.

Musically Hold is HAM at their most evil-sounding.  Svik, Harmur og Dauð might be heavier, but this is the record that hits you like a plunge into an ice cold lake.  Right from the start on “Trúboðasleikjari” you’re hit with opposing vocals, the possessed witch-like screech of Óttarr riding over the top and Sigurjón’s baritone doom creating a cold stone floor underneath.  The guitars crackle like an electric fence, threatening to fry your nerves and set your hair on fire.  And from there HAM don’t let up, with Óttarr trading his signing for an animalistic rasp on “Svín,” and the assault just continuing with “Auður Sif.”  You get a bit of a break with “Transylvania,” which has some mildly creepy Gregorian chant-like vocals, but sonically isn’t as heavy or incendiary as the first three tracks.  “Hold” closes the EP out, punching you straight in the nose right from the first pounding note, the weightiest song on the album with it’s trance inducing guitars and repetitive refrain of “hold” being said over and over and over.  The whole thing is only about 18 minutes long, but after listening to Hold straight through I feel like I need to go sit out on the front steps with a cigarette and a beer, wrap my arms around myself, and rock back and forth to get the voices out of my head.

All five songs on Hold also appear on the 1993 CD Saga Rokksins 1988-1993, so at least you have another way to get this music besides the expensive, vinyl-only Hold.  That being said, Saga Rokksins isn’t the easiest thing to find either… and if you can get your hands on this record for a decent price, I’d suggest you buy it.  I’d definitely pick up a second copy if the price was right.

Buffalo Virgin
(1989 – One Little Indian – Vinyl and CD)

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The Sugarcubes showed their support for HAM by releasing Hold on their own Icelandic label, Smekkleysa, and the following year they stepped in to help again, getting HAM signed with the UK label that they worked with, One Little Indian.  It was a shot at the big time, promising wider distribution, but it also was a big departure from the band’s sound on Hold.  In last year’s Metal Hammer interview Sigurjón referred to 1989s Buffalo Virgin as “a detour” and noted that it “doesn’t represent us at all.”

I’d have to agree… somewhat, though more so with respect to side A.  Buffalo Virgin opens with “Slave,” a straight-forward hard rocker that lacks the disturbing aspects of Hold.  Óttarr and Sigurjón’s massively contrasting vocal styles keep it from falling into blandness, however, and regardless of what direction the band’s music takes that duo ensure that it always sounds like HAM at some level.  “Youth” marks a move back in the direction of Hold with a heavier sound and more tormented vocals, though it lacks the creepy factor of the earlier songs.  The high point of the album, and the one that got them some airplay in the UK at the time, is “Voulez Vous,” a HAM version of the Abba hit, and it’s brilliant.  The guys took a disco hit and turned it inside out, taking the light and polished tune and turning it into a doom metal number, staying surprisingly true to the originally while still playing it in a completely different style.  In many ways it makes sense that this was arguably their biggest song outside of Iceland, as it shows the band at their most wink-wink-nod-nod, being deadly serious about being tongue-in-cheek.  “Linda Blair” (the actress who played the possessed child character named Regan in The Exorcist) is the closest HAM comes to their earlier work, with the obvious exception of the final track on side A, “Svín,” a song that actually appeared originally on Hold and was also included on Buffalo Virgin.

The B side is more consistently doom-ish, with more weight on the musical low end and Sigurjón showing us some new vocal range with a soaring style of baritone on “Misery” (something he exhibits on “Voulez Vous” as well).  “Forbidden Lovers” is HAM at their heaviest, giving us a sense of that foreboding style that would come to define their sound in later years, a sort of denser and heavier version of the Hold songs.

Buffalo Virgin may be a bit of an outlier in the HAM body of work, a small tentative step in a more mainstream direction.  But don’t be fooled.  They still knew how to rock and play to their strengths, especially on side B.

Saga Rokksins 1988-1993
(1993 – Nordisk Musik – CD only)

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It’s kind of hard to place Saga Rokksins in the HAM catalog, as it consists of both new and previously released material.  Six of the 13 tracks appear on other HAM albums, including “Death” from Buffalo Virgin and all five songs from Hold, marking it as the only place where studio versions of four of Hold‘s five songs appear on a non-vinyl format (the fifth, “Svín,” was included on Buffalo Virgin).  Another, “Lonesome Duke,” was previously released as part of a 1990 Bad Taste (aka Smekkleysa) Icelandic comp called World Domination or Death Vol. 1 That leaves us with six songs that were entirely new when they appeared on Saga Rokksins.  These were a mix of tracks that were part of the aborted album that would have been called Pimpmobile and the sessions for the Sódóma Reykjavík film soundtrack.

Miraculously I found a copy of this CD on eBay a few years back.  Iit doesn’t seem to pop up for sale very often – though at the time I was writing this, there was a US seller on Discogs who had one for $30, so if it’s still there, you might want to go buy it.

Saga Rokksins opens with “Musculus,” a doom metal Gregorian chant, pure and simple, and it’s followed by one of my all time HAM favorites, “Sanity,” the perfect interplay between Sigurjón deep voice and the possessed frog-like croaking of Óttarr.  This pair of tracks represents the most current material on the CD with both songs having been recorded in September 1992, foreshadowing HAM’s future direction with their musical relentlessness.  Of the newly released material, “Gefðu Mér Ást” stands apart from the rest stylistically.  It’s a difficult song to get a handle on, a bit reminiscent of some of the side A material from Buffalo Virgin, musically more of a rock song but with a bit of that unique HAM vocal flair.

The CD liner notes indicate that track #8 appeared on World Domination or Death Vol. 1, but that song is called “Æskublóm,” and it doesn’t appear on that compilation.  The two HAM songs that are on there are “Voulez Vous” (off of Buffalo Virgin) and “Lonesome Duke,” which is actually track #6 on Saga Rokksins.  This probably doesn’t matter to most people who aren’t completely obsessed with HAM, but it is a point that seems like it should be clarified.  As for the song, “Lonesome Duke” is characterized by that HAM-esque musical repetition, begging for the band to break loose of their self-imposed structure but never doing so, the only relief coming from Proppé’s rap-like delivery in his vocal segments.  “Transylvania II,” a sort of revamped version of the original “Transylvania” from Hold, and “Æskublóm” close out the remaining new material. “Æskublóm” is another curve ball of sorts, one of the band’s more experimental tracks.  It’s that very rarest of creatures, a slow HAM song, something reminiscent of a haunted forest at dusk, when the spirits of the day are giving way to the much darker spirits of the night.  The song itself might be haunted, but I can’t be sure.

Saga Rokksins represents many of the characteristics of the typical HAM album – some new material, some recycled stuff, and a whole lot of weird.

Lengi Lifi
(1994 – Smekkleysa – CD only – Live Performance from June 4, 1994)

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Lengi Lifi proved to be the most elusive album on my quest to complete the HAM catalog and it was the last one I acquired.  I had three different friends in Reykjavik on the lookout for a copy, and it was none other than Dr. Gunni himself who emailed me one day to let me know he’d found it for me.  Success!  For whatever reason I have a hard time with the concept of a CD being “limited” or “hard to find,” so this was one of the rare times in my life that I’ve paid a bit of a premium price for one – but I have to think that the print run was small since there pretty much wasn’t any demand outside of Iceland (sources indicate there were only 1,000 copies made), and certainly my struggles in finding a copy seem to bear this out.  There are two copies currently for sale on Discogs, both from sellers in Iceland and each priced at around $90.

This live show on June 4, 1994 was supposed to be HAM’s farewell, and it actually was for quite some time – as near as I can tell they didn’t perform again for the remainder of the decade.  It’s an iconic show, and you can even see a video of the whole thing on YouTube (see below).  How good is it?  Well, the book 100 Bestu Plötur Íslandssögunnar ranked it the 39th best Icelandic album, which I think is the second highest position held by a live album on that list, eclipsed only by the soundtrack to Rokk í Reykjavík.

There are 17 HAM songs on Lengi Lifi (excluding the symphonic intro), and what’s particularly interesting to me is that as near as I can tell only 11 of these had previously appeared on other HAM albums or the Sódóma Reykjavík soundtrack.  Two others, “Austur” and “Demetra,” were included in the HAM live CD CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993 (a show that took place before this one, but that wasn’t released on CD until 2001), while “Airport” later appeared on the Drepnir (1996) Icelandic music compilation, also as a live version but one that sounds to be from a different show.  That leaves “2000” and “Örlög” (the latter of which gives a writing credit to Björk) as potentially making their only appearances on this album.  Maybe you care.  Maybe you don’t.  But figuring this kind of thing out is what keeps me up at night.  We are HAM!

A song-by-song breakdown of this album just doesn’t feel necessary.  Know that the recording quality is excellent, much better than what you’d expect if you’d only seen the low quality YouTube video I linked to above.  It definitely sounds like sound board quality, and they packed every byte with music, with the album coming it at around 68 minutes.  It includes a great live version of their ABBA cover “Voulez-Vous” on which Óttarr at times sounds like a barking rabid dog, and hearing the yell from the crowd when the opening chord of “Partíbær” reminds me of the excitement of hearing the band launch into this classic at the live shows I’ve been fortunate enough to attend.  HAM brings tremendous energy to their concerts, and that’s captured on Lengi Lifi.  It’s a must-have for your HAM collection.

Dauður Hestur
(1995 – Skífan – CD only)

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This was another tough-to-find album for me.  I put out some feelers and after maybe six months or so my friends over at Lucky Records said they’d found a copy for me, and while as I previously mentioned I have a hard time with more-than-retail prices for used CDs, when something is rare, it’s rare, and that means you have to pay a bit more.  The guys at Lucky were more than fair, and I was glad to have it, so it was still a win.

Dead Horse was a sort of HAM post mortem, a confusing hodgepodge of both previously released and unreleased material.  “Sanity” and “Dimitri” from Saga Rokksins are here, as are four tracks from the Sódóma Reykjavík soundtrack.  So as near as I can tell only five of the 11 tracks on Dauður Hestur were previously unreleased.  Of these, only “Bulldozer” would make a future appearance, showing up on the 2001 live CD Skert Flog.  This leaves us with four songs that are only available on this collection – “Deathbillies on the Run,” “On the Run Again,” “Birth of a Marination,” and “Retrofire.”  Björk is back as well, playing keyboards on four songs for one of her favorite all-time bands.

The album opens with two previously unreleased songs, “Deathbillies on the Run” and “Bulldozer,” songs that are less heavy than HAM’s standard fare and that find Sigurjón seemingly try to sing at a somewhat higher pitch, bringing his normal baritone up to a tenor.  He has the range, but it takes away some of the dissonance between him and Óttarr that makes HAM’s sound so distinct.  Basically these are a couple of good hard rock songs.  But then “Party Town” (aka “Partíbær”) kicks in and we’re back to classic HAM, the unstoppable music force, coming straight at you.  “Sodoma Theme” gives us that rare, mythical beast, the HAM instrumental, though since this is HAM there is still a little anguished screaming at one point.  The studio version of “Manifesto” (previously only heard on Lengi Lifi) is a step back in time to Hold-era HAM, a disturbingly delicious piece with Óttarr sounding like he’s vomiting forth the vocals.

The last third of Dauður Hestur features three of the new songs, starting with, surprisingly, another instrumental, “On the Run Again.”  “Birth of a Marination” brings back the driving, relentless musical attack, with a few HAM-esque guitar flourishes to round it out while Óttarr provides the details with a raspy, spoken style of delivery.  That’s followed by one of my all-time favorites “Sanity,” which first appeared on Saga Rokksins two years earlier.  To close the album out we’re given “Retrofire,” which opens with a space-launch style countdown before kicking into… wait… what is that?  It’s the guitar riff from “Musculus,” no doubt about it.  It’s actually like a remix of “Musculus,” replacing the Gregorian chant style of vocal delivery of the original with audio clips of an unfolding space flight disaster, chatter between the astronauts and earth, sort of a HAM version of “Space Oddity” but, you know, with a killer, pounding guitar riff.

Dauður Hestur is perhaps a bit inconsistent, but that’s to be expected given that this material was taken from a number of recording sessions over a four year period and intended for different purposes.  There’s still some excellent material here, though, including a nice group of new songs.  It would be 17 more years before we got another HAM studio album, but man when they came back, they came back with a vengeance.

CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993
(2001 – No Label – CD and Cassette – Live Performance from August 7, 1993)

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I’m not entirely sure what the story is with this CD.  HAM relocated to New York in an attempt to achieve a breakout of sorts and played a number of live shows, including some at the iconic club CBGB’s.  This eight-song CD captures one of these concerts, played on August 7, 1993.  As near as I can tell the album came out in 2001, and that’s just a guess based on the copyright date shown on the disc itself.  This has all the hallmarks of an unofficial release – instead of a  booklet like you’d normally find with a CD, with CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993 you simply get a slightly thicker than normal piece of paper as an insert, only printed on one side, and even that isn’t particularly well done.  I suspect it was put out due to the resurgence in HAM mania in 2001 following the band coming out of retirement for some shows that summer (see Skert Flog below).  A handful of people have it listed in their collections on Discogs, and I bought my copy probably 5-6 years ago at Lucky Records – long enough ago that it was back when they were in their old, cramped location on Hverfisgata.  There’s no sales history on Discogs, so it’s a bit of a tough one to track down.

CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993 is quite a bit shorter than Lengi Lifi at only eight songs and about 32 minutes, but don’t let that fool you – it’s a solid album.  All the songs appear on that earlier live album (♠), though two are here under different names – “Marination” is the same song as “Marinering,” while for some bizarre reason the last song on CBGB’s is listed as “R Poh” when in fact it’s “Airport.”   The recording quality is admittedly not as good as its predecessor, with the low end sounding a bit flat and tinny and the entire thing a little hollow.  Musically, however, the band is tight.  They open with a fast-paced version of “Sanity,” and the recording quality actually serves to bring Óttarr’s vocals out front and center.  In fact, I think all the vocals are a bit clearer on this CD – but that may be because all these songs are sung in English as opposed to their original Icelandic, which makes it much easier for me to “hear” the vocals.  That’s followed by “Austur,” and you know I think I might like this version even better than the one from Lengi Lifi.  “Marination” is probably the high point, with a good pace and feeling like it’s the least impacted by the sound quality limitations.

The big positive of CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993 for the non-Icelandic speaker is that the songs are in English, making them a bit more approachable.  For my money, however, I still prefer the longer and better quality Lengi Lifi.  Regardless, both are super hard to find, so if you come across a copy and the price is reasonable, you should absolutely pick one up.

As an aside, Sigurjón told me that the band actually got paid for at least one of their CBGB’s gigs by none other than Hilly Kristal himself.  He ran into Hilly again a decade or so later when the club was facing closure, but while they said “hi” to one another there wasn’t any reminiscing.  Of all the famous clubs in venues in America, perhaps the coolest on to be able to say you played at was CBGB’s.

(UPDATE Feb. 27, 2016 –> My friend Gestur from Lucky Records dropped me a note after reading this to let me know that CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993 was actually first released as a limited edition (numbered of 50 copies) cassette sometime in 1993.  Takk, Gestur!)

Skert Flog
(2001 – HITT – CD only – Live Performance from June 14, 2001)

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I bought this CD at the same time that I picked up CBGB’s 7. Ágúst 1993.  The more I think about it, the more I feel like it was in 2011, because HAM had just released a new album and was playing Airwaves, and I was super excited to see them live having heard so much about the legendary band.  The only place I’ve ever seen it for sale is in Iceland, and as I’m writing this the only copies for sale on Discogs are from there as well, which isn’t a surprise.

This album came about when in 2001 HAM came out of retirement to open a couple of shows in Reykjavik for Rammstein.  The local response was great, which led HAM to headline a show of their own at the club Gaukur á Stöng on June 14 that was recorded and released on CD as the 10 song, 43 minute Skert Flog.  It also resulted in a new HAM documentary called Living Dead that came out later that year.  I actually got a copy of this film on DVD last year at Airwaves, and it’s a fantastic, Spinal Tap-ish documentary in which almost everyone has their tongue firmly planted in their cheek.  My favorite line is from Dr. Gunni himself who observed about the band, “In the end they’re into industrial rock like Toto.”  We are HAM!

Right from the start it’s apparent that Skert Flog is going to kick all kinds of ass.  The CD opens with “Trúboðasleikjari,” the first song off their first EP, Hold, and it couldn’t be any better.  The sound quality is excellent and the band as at their evil best with a doom vibe and Óttarr’s voice trying to infect your soul.  By time we get to “Sanity” the whole thing is at a fever pitch, the vocals reaching a point of pure incessantness and both singers straining their voices as far as they possibly can without blowing them out completely, pure raw energy and adrenalin.  And then they slow it down with a sludgy, heavy, weighty version of “Voulez Vous” that lays on your chest like a massive stone that you can’t push off.  The second half of the CD includes a pounding, anxiety-inducing version of “Bulldozer,” some amazing choral singing on “Musculus,” and the whole thing closes out with a rousing rendition of “Partíbær,” the song that should close out every HAM concert from here until the end of time.

I hadn’t listened to this album in a long time, and honestly I’d forgotten how great it is.  I went into this project thinking that Lengi Lifi was the obvious choice for the best HAM live album, but after hearing Skert Flog again… well, I think we have a new champ.  The CD has a career-spanning selection of material, most of it sung in English, and the recording quality is excellent.  Lengi Lifi may be as good as this, but it’s not better.

Svik, Harmur og Dauði
(2011 – Smekkleysa – Vinyl and CD)

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Svik, Harmur og Dauði.  Betrayal, Sorrow and Death.  An album title that perfectly conveys the mood of the music.

I was excited as hell to hear that HAM was releasing a new album in 2011, and even more so that they were playing Iceland Airwaves.  They were on my “absolutely, positively must-see” list for the festival that year, and their show at the Reykjavik Art Museum lived up to the hype, a packed house with bodies crammed together and swaying at the front of the stage.  When the show was over the concrete floor of the venue looked like the aftermath of a huge fraternity party, with crushed cans and cups everywhere, and slick patches of beer and other unidentifiable fluids that made walking dangerous even if you were sober.  I bought a copy of the CD early in the trip, and then got pissed when I saw a copy of it on vinyl at the label/record store Smekkleysa.  After uttering some profanities I announced that it just didn’t make sense for me to drop another $40-50 on a vinyl copy of something I’d already bought on CD just the day before.  But my man Norberto was with me, and saved the day when he told me he’d buy the CD from me so I could just shut the hell up and buy the record.  Because that’s what friends do for each other – make sacrifices so you’ll shut the hell up.  It turned out to be a double win when I got the record back the apartment and realized that not only was the jacket actually a fold-out poster, but the package also included a CD copy of the album.  Score!

Right from the opening chords of “Einskins Son” it was evident that not only was HAM back, but they were back to their old school form.  Heavy, pounding, heavy, deep, heavy, relentless… this song attacks you like an army of demons from the pits of hell, with Óttarr whipping them into a fever pitch.  And then it gets even more darkly powerful with what is, in my humble opinion, the greatest song in the HAM discography, “Dauð Hóra,” literally “Dead Whore.”  It’s a song that feels like will burst forward into speed or thrash metal at any moment, but maintains it’s pace.  Coming at you.  Not stopping.  One heavy metal step at a time, until the last minute or so when the pace intensifies and so does the head-banging when it’s played live.  It’s a driving powerhouse of a song, and a consistent part of HAM’s live sets.

What separates Svik, Harmur og Dauði from the other HAM studio albums is a level of internal consistency – for the first time since the five-song Hold I feel like HAM has a very specific direction in mind, and they’re giving it to the listener with both barrels.  It’s HAM at their doomiest and heaviest.  That’s not to disparage their earlier material, because some of the plain old hard rockers like “Partíbær” absolutely kill it.  But this to me is HAM distilled to their purest form, and my all-time favorite of their albums

“Sviksemi” / “Tveir Dalir”
(2011 – Smekkleysa – 7″ Vinyl only)

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Despite having been fairly prolific over the years, to the best of my knowledge “Sviksemi” / “Tveir Dalir” is the only time that HAM released a 7″ single.  It was already in the stores when we were in Reykjavik for Airwaves in 2011, so I’m not sure if it pre- or post-dates the release of Svik, Harmur og Dauði.  “Sviksemi” is on that album, but the B side “Tveir Dalir” is not, and as near as I can tell is currently only available here as a B side – it’s not on any of the HAM live albums, nor on any compilations.  Sonically it fits in well with the Svik, Harmur og Dauði, and while I don’t know exactly what it’s about, Óttarr introduced it at the band’s KEX Hostel show in November 2014 thusly:  “The last song was a song about our lying friend.  But the next song is about two hermits who live in separate valleys, but love can travel over the mountains.  It’s a hard thing if you’re a hermit.”  Love can travel over the mountains….

Other Appearances

HAM songs have appeared on a number of non-HAM albums.  Below is just a brief listing of the stuff I know about.  None of these songs are unique, in that all appear on at least one actual HAM release.

  • New Icelandic Music cassette (1987):  “Trúboðasleikjari”
  • One Little Indian Flexi 7″ (1989):  “Voulez Vous”
  • One Little Indian Greatest Hits Volume 2 (1990):  “Voulez Vous”
  • World Domination or Death Volume 1 (1990):  “Voulez Vous” and “Lonesome Duke”
  • Sódóma Reykjavík Soundtrack (1992):  “Partýbær,” “Animalia,” and “Manifesto”
  • Drepnir (1996):  “Airport” (live)
  • Alltaf Sama Svínið (2002):  “Transylvanía”
  • Rokkskífan – Rokklag Frá Hverju Ári Skífunnar (2006):  “Party Town”

HAM performances can also be found on some various DVDs, but that’s sort of outside the scope of this overview, so for now I’m going to skip those.  Probably the best thing out there on the interwebs is the full performance of the band’s show at KEX Hostel at Iceland Airwaves 2014.  I was there that night, way in the back by the door because the place was so packed.  It’s probably the only time at Airwaves that we’ve actually seen a band come out and do an encore (seriously).  HAM perform a couple of songs that aren’t on any of their other albums (yet…), most notably the killer opener “Brekka,” along with “Þú lýgur” and “Morðingjar.”  Hopefully we’ll see some of these on the next record.  They also played their only B side, “Tveir Dalir.”  Check it out.  It’s well worth a listen.

If I were going to give you a “must have” list of HAM albums, there are three that stick out to me as combining to provide the best possible overview of the band’s material and sound.

  • Svik, Harmur og Dauði is, to me, the best HAM studio album
  • Saga Rokksins 1988-1993 provides a great overview of the band’s early material, including all five songs off their debut EP Hold
  • Skert Flog, which is my favorite of the three live HAM albums and one that gives you a good sense of the band’s live sound

So that, my friends, is the HAM discography, start to finish.  Sigurjón tells me that they have an album’s worth of material ready, so if all goes well we’ll have a new one later this year, which would be fantastic (if the guys at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records are reading this, put a vinyl copy on hold for me whenever it comes out!).

We are HAM!

 

(♠)  Lengi Lifi was released many years prior to CBGB’s, but the actual CBGB’s show took place a year before the one that was recorded for Lengi Lifi.